Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
The ability to remain mindful, to hold that space Frankl speaks of is a great gift. To greet it without compulsion, habit or knee-jerk reactions is to face what comes as honestly as possible.
As Rosemary McGinn says in her article, Addiction, Meditation and Space,
Without some degree of mindfulness, it can seem impossible to distinguish between stimulus and response, between experience and association.
Life happens fast. So fast our minds have a hard time keeping up with it. Even our judgements lag behind. So our minds form little habits in order to keep up, to deal with all that happens. They do it by forming associations.
But, like experiences, our
associations tumble along so quickly that they seem indistinguishable from the experience that launched them.
The human mind, not always a model of efficiency, makes a valiant effort in these cases. According to Sharon Salzberg, we
tend to compound our experience, jumbling together stimulus and response,
and our minds can drag us, unawares, from experience to judgement to anger or doubt to self-hatred in a trice.
As clicker trainers and those who practice mindfulness meditation know, there is a space in there.
Remember the old adage about counting to ten when angered before acting? That’s a means of creating awareness of the space. There are all sorts of ways of remembering that space, of recognizing it in the fleeting infinitesimal instant of its existence, and using it to its best advantage: kindness. Kindness to ourselves and our horses.
How to spot the space?
Some people do it by stilling their minds on a regular basis. This is not easy, but bears fruit over time. A few seconds at a time to start. Counting your breath without falling into the habit of discursive thought, daydreaming, etc. Returning to the simple awareness of the breath when you find yourself thinking. That breath is the space.
It seemed impossible that I would ever build the muscle enough to be of much use: when I tried to count breaths up to 4, I often found myself at 37 before noticing I’d wandered.
It’s a conscious choice to seize the chance to slow things down once you spot the space, to deliberately choose your judgement and reaction based on where you’ve gone off the track, and returning to the basics. To have compassion for ourselves and others. When you’ve figured out what you want to do with the space, it works.
What do I want to do with the space?
I know what I don’t want to do with it. I don’t want to fall into aggression, anger or fear. They are the usual responses, especially when the stimulus is new or particularly challenging.
Last week I had a chance to work with a horse who showed me some particularly challenging behaviors. My task was simply to assess his body for signs of physical distress that might cause behavioral issues. But I could not get him to stand still long enough to complete the assessment. While he was dancing around, my feet were in constant danger, as were various parts of my body that he threatened to nip. Clearly, there was something going on with this guy.
Initial reaction, without respecting the space: irritation with the horse: “don’t you know I”m trying to help you?” It happens in a flash. So fast I’m not even aware of it.
Secondary reaction: “I can’t even handle him for the 90 seconds it takes to complete the assessment.”
Tertiary reaction: “I’m not very good at this.”
Had I been more mindful, acknowledging the space would have allowed me to think,”Yes, there is something going on here. I can’t handle him myself and assess him at the same time.” I needed to ask for a second person. Focusing in on a spiral of thoughts on myself, my own little ego, obliterated the space between the stimulus (the dancing, nipping horse), and the response (self-doubt and recrimination). The efficiency and habit-following tendency of my mind did me no favors here. But I’m really in charge of that, aren’t I?
Now I know what I want to do with the space: Practice practice practice and awareness. Respect it.
Next time: see the space.
Choose the response (don’t let it choose me): it’s not all about me.
Ask for help if you need it.
Help the horse.
I got the idea for this post from the blog at Beliefnet and from falling while walking Rubydog. How did this happen? Simply put, I wasn’t paying attention. In comments on Live In the Present Moment we’ve been discussing quality of attention and how it affects riding and our lives, and I failed to practice what I preach.
As Rubydog and I rounded a corner on our way home from our morning walk/jog, I waved to the construction workers who are adding the new lanais on our complex, and put a foot wrong. I fell with a comically spectacular splat, removing skin and flesh from a large portion of my elderly knee. Ouch. Hilarity and gushing of blood ensued. Road rash in Hawaii has a particularly jagged quality because of the lava.
In truth, I was not paying attention. I was multi-tasking. I was thinking of my daughter, watching the rare two cars that were passing, and anticipating the greetings of the workers. Most folks would say this isn’t too much. That’s not multitasking! But it was. Look what happened.
Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone while walking down the street, while drinking a cup of coffee, making a mental shopping list, and getting your keys ready to open your front door?
What about talking on the phone while looking at your email, admiring a new car in a tv commercial?
Wouldn’t want to miss anything!
How about when we’re talking to a good friend and furtively glance at our Blackberry? Media guru Renny Gleeson says that what we’re really saying is, “you are not as important as literally almost anything that could come to me through this device.”
Ram Dass said it well, forty years ago: Be Here Now.
But we all try and multitask to some degree. Well, most of us. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic:
“When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You should train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.”
I’m guessing Thay doesn’t have a Blackberry.
We often act as though multitasking is necessary, that to be successful in this frenetic world requires us to juggle hyperkinetically, never letting our attention rest on one thing for more than a fraction of a second. We’re given tips on how to do it better, and gadgets that make it easier. One of the biggest complaints people seem to have about the new iPad is its inability to multitask.
Driving, for sure, takes a lot of concentration. We all wish we could shout, “Get off the phone and drive!” now and again. In Hawaii, it’s illegal to use a cellphone in the driver’s seat. But the rest of the time, wouldn’t you think multitasking was OK?
Neuroscientist Gary Aston-Jones, Ph.D said in a recent CNN.com article, says there may be a cost associated with becoming an expert multitasker, saying it “may ‘lower the threshold of distractibility,’ possibly harming the ability to do tasks that require intense sustained focus, such as art, science, and writing.”
A new study suggests that people who often do multiple tasks in a variety of media — texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more — do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way.
Ashton-Jones has found that “heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy.” because they tend to retain distracting information in short-term memory. This impedes their ability to focus on the current job at hand, compared to those who don’t multitask. Apparently, short term memory has a greater function in tasks requiring sustained focus than just keeping al the facts in the mix.
You’re being flooded with too much information and you can’t selectively filter out quickly which is important and which is not important. It only takes a fraction of a second for you to take your eyes off the road and miss the guy making a right-hand turn into your lane.
Here’s what I think is the most interesting part of the article:
Aston-Jones says that it’s unclear if some people are drawn to multitasking because that’s the way their brain works, or if multitasking itself causes changes in the brain. And it’s not clear if the brain changes caused by switching attention from YouTube to Google to Twitter and then back to your iPhone — if that is what is occurring — are easily reversed.
And in fact, we’re not really multitasking anyway, says neuroscientist Earl Millier:
People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.
Humans simply don’t focus very well on more than one thing at a time. All you have to do is take a look at my knee if you want proof.
What humans can do, Millier said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with lightning speed. This is very different from the way the mind and perceptual system of horses work. As we switch from attentive task to task, we fool ourselves into thinking we are paying attention to everything around us at the same time. But it is really sequential. Horses, unlike humans, perceive the reality around them in a diffuse way, for which they are sometimes punished. I wrote about this in Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention? and then it was discussed with great alacrity at Glenshee Equestrian Center.
The problem with multitasking is so very simple. Changing our minds is not. If we choose too many objects to give our attention to, we cannot deepen our familiarity, our friendliness, with any of them. Our minds cannot immerse themselves in each object’s arena beyond superficiality. It’s like glancing instead of examining.
Here’s where mindfulness practice can come in handy. Rather than acting as mental dilettantes and leaping from one task to another, if we allow our minds to fully occupy one object at a time, we can assemble a coherent theme. There is great comfort in this, and for those who practice it, greater productivity, connection to their inner worlds as well as to those in the outside world.
Resting with open attention on any object (by object I mean thought, thing, process, etc.) activates the innate human intelligence that is bypassed in multitasking. Deeper comprehension and familiarity allow greater effectiveness and insight. I suspect I don’t have to tell you this after you have tried thirty times to jump the same combination successfully. If you tried it the first ten times while mentally complaining your grocery list and the next two times while predcting that your horse was going to veer to the left after the second jump, your failure was practically guaranteed. Once your focus was fully on the process, however, and you held in your mind the picture of success (much like the visualization process of sports psychology), banishing all ideas of what might go wrong, you did it! Success!
Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment. You may like to smile to it before you put it in your mouth. When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don’t put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
Chögyam Trungpa way back in 1976, reminded me that I should not walk and think at the same time:
Meditation is working with our speed, our restlessness, our constant busyness. Meditation provides space or ground in which restlessness might function, might have room to be restless, might relax by being restless. If we do not interfere with restlessness, then restlessness becomes part of the space. We do not control or attack the desire to catch our next tail.
I come back to it again and again, much as Bonnitta does when exploring the left, the right, in order to find the middle: “Oops, Thinking! Let go of that thought. Focus on now.”
As Buddhists say so often:
When walking, just walk.
When riding, just ride.
Whenever disaster strikes, there is the rush to aid. Someone dies, and remaining loved ones are showered with attention from friends and family. An auto accident produces offers of assistance in the form of casseroles, rides to the doctor’s office, errands run. Natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti create a huge flurry of activity in the form on international aid and reconstruction.
Until, that is, people reach a kind of empathy overload. It’s a natural part of the human psychology to harden a little bit, to have their empathy less and less stimulated by the triggering event. This is the same mechanism that makes pornography so dangerous and even, some would say, our ability to turn away from cruel horsemanship practices like LDR and soring. In these cases, it’s obviously not empathy that gets overloaded, but the appetite for stimulus that gets satisfied in the same way. There is the mental need to move on to increasing foci.
I have experienced this phenomenon so many times I can’t count. I know it intimately. We as a family have had more than our share, more than the share of several families, of sudden disaster. Early on, there were a great outpouring of kindness and offers of assistance. In fact, I don’t know if I could have made it through my daughter’s first grade year without the assistance of the entire lower school of the Princeton Day School. But as the tragedies continued, I found folks to become more and more inured. Whether it was a case of “there before the grace of you go I,” or whether we as a family revealed to them the truth that you can’t really protect your child, I don’t know. All I do know is it became easier and easier for them to make an initial offer and then to turn away. To protect themselves.
This brings me (finally!) to the point of this post.
Elisha Goldstien, PhD iis offering downloads of his ebook, A Mindful Dialogue: A Path Toward Working With Stress, Pain and Difficult Emotions for $9.99, with 100% of the proceeds going to the organization Hope for Haiti Now, which donates to The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, Red Cross, UNICEF, United Nations World Food Programme, and Yele Haiti Foundation. Whether this will still mean hope for Haiti in ten years, time will tell, but even as you read this, empathetic minds are wandering, and pocketbooks are dwindling.
The reason I have chosen to donate through Elisha Goldstein is that learning mindful coping mechanisms can only increase and sustain my source of empathy for others (horses included). I develop myself as a being while coming to the aid of others.
Here’s a description of the ebook:
A Mindful Dialogue was written to be a companion through life when dealing with stress, pain and difficult emotions. Through 24 interviews with leaders in the field such as Jack Kornfield, Dan Siegel, Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Jeff Brantley, Zindel Segal and Others and 23 short explorations of simple quotes from leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Rumi, Hafiz, Pema Chodron and others, you’ll uncover a mindful path toward working with the stress, pain and difficult emotions in daily life.
That’s quite a list of contributors. I’ll be please to throw my little hat in with their very big ones and add to the continuing aid for Haitians, who have so little right now.
May the quest for compassion by one individual inform the greater empathy of all.
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.
It has long been known that living in the present moment is the key to contentment. It is more than that, more than a way to live life to its fullest. It is an opportunity to participate directly in reality as it is created.
Often we bumble through it. We think we are paying attention, but really we are not.
I can’t tell you how many times I would lose focus simply trying to execute a simple 20 meter circle or serpentine. Or to get over a series of low jumps in a straight line.
“No Kim–were you paying attention? You lost it in the same spot as last time! Try it again!”
My horse was on point. No loss of attention there, because animals don’t indulge in that inner dialog that distracts us from participation in the present moment. I was intent on not making the same mistake I made last time. Like not thinking of the elephant in the room, we think of the elephant in the room. The mistake we made last time is in the consciousness if we are trying to avoid it. Better to eliminate it from the mind and focus only on current reality. Right now, it’s not there. Even better, holding the intention that things will go well increases the chances that they will.
But planning for the future, even a second or two into it, has its own disadvantages, as riders know. Your body does what your mind tells it, sometimes without your permission or knowledge. Better not to anticipate.
We hear it all the time, no matter the discipline: “Stay out of your horse’s way.” It’s hard to stay out of the horse’s way if you are a novice, and sometimes hard to do it as an advanced rider, too, if you are accustomed to over riding. For human beings, each stimulus prompts its own cascade of inner dialog or opportunity for spacing out. Like the half halt or the rein back, staying present is a skill that must be practiced. The key as both novices and advanced riders to staying out of the horse’s way and maintaining focus is living in the present moment.
As in riding, so in life. Or vice versa: stay out of life’s way. Don’t over-live and don’t go through blindly. Most folks move back and forth between these two modes automatically, moment by moment, without awareness of it. Can we take hold of the reins and greet each new stimulus as it comes? Not as easy as it sounds.
I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for mental presence and focus as you ride.
Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.
–Thich Nhat Hanh
Many thanks to Beliefnet for the idea for this series of posts and for the quotes used in it. Interpretations are mine.
I read a review at blogcritics.org of The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz* that made me laugh out loud. Only problem was, I was on my lanai and it was 11:30 at night. I’m sure I awoke my neighbors who had an early plane to Minnesota this morning. Sorry!
Here’s what the reviewer said to evoke my mirthful response:
Before I get started with this review, I feel the need to get one important caveat out of the way: I am not one of those navel-gazing, crystal-wearing, pipe-smoking, new-age freaks. There, I feel much better.
Funny: a year ago, I might have written that. Elements of the statement still apply. But if the desire to get to the elemental truth of man’s relationship to horses qualifies me as a freak, so be it. Few changes in the world have been wrought by folks who walk the middle of the road. The reviewer’s statement did give me an idea for a good Halloween costume, though.
In my post asking for input on a equine bill of rights, I said,
If we love our animals, why not ensure that they enjoy the same benefits of living in the modern that we hope to provide for our loved ones? After all, when we assume the stewardship of an animal, we also take on the responsibility of treating it humanely.
From that statement, I’ve been steadily work backward to the foundation of humane and compassionate treatment of horses in the area of riding, training and basic care. Working deductively toward a kind of mission statement as to the essentials has not proven easy. The constituent articles of such a foundation will always be hotly debated unless we arrive at the most fundamental of conclusions. That’s why I was thrilled to learn of,
The Four Agreements
by don Miguel Ruiz
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.
In The Four Agreements, a book written with the self-actualization of people in mind, don Miguel Ruiz writes from the ancient Toltec perspective, revisiting the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. The Four Agreements offers a code of conduct for the transformation from old patterns of reactiveness to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love. According to Ruiz, we have domesticated ourselves from birth to accept confining cultural and spiritual constructs. He labels the beliefs borne of this process of domestication agreements. Everything people do is based on agreements we have made – with ourselves, with other people, with life. He goes on to explain that the majority of these agreements are detrimental to us in that they derive from fear, which saps our energy and diminishes our self worth. They limit our ability to live in the moment with joy and clarity of vision. Ruiz emphasizes the fact that the most important agreements are those we make with ourselves. Here we tell ourselves who we are, how we should behave, what is possible, what is impossible. These agreements can be changed with determination and awareness.
Like tiny seeds planted in cold, dark soil, I suddenly felt the faint stirrings of promise sprouting in some of the darkest places of my mind. While these simple concepts might be rather obvious to some, for me they were wonderful reminders of the importance of stopping, taking a step back, and reevaluating habits and priorities.
The current, longstanding welfare problems for horses can be said to arise from our dysfunctional agreements with ourselves on the subject of our relationship to other beings (and, for the purposes of our discussion, to horses). I’d like to examine the agreements with respect to horses in light of the proposed equine bill of rights.
1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
“Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
Here is where your Horseman’s Manifesto will come in handy. Deliberate application of our personal manifestos on a moment-by-moment basis will take concentration at first, but will soon become second nature if attempted with an open heart. Speaking to our horses comprises just about every possible action taken under saddle and on the ground. These are promises that must not be broken.
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
This agreement is less easy to interpret. Our relationships with our horses are personal. The danger of personalizing their reactions to our requests and demands however, is that reactivity seldom produces positive results. Greeting our horses’ reactions to us with the emotional detachment that derives from unconditional acceptance and compassion eliminates the potential for harmful ego-based negative reactions. An example: When I first started riding, I thought my Quarter Horse Brego was trying to kill me. It really hurt my feelings that day after day I would go to him and try with all my might to stay on during his frenzied spins, only to get repeated mouthfuls of turf. One can see where personalizing issues like this can lead. If I were a different kind of person, I might have punished him for this kind of behavior.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
“Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.”
We don’t speak the same language, horses and people. Even those who claim to be horse whisperers will admit they don’t listen as well as they should all the time. In all fairness, making assumptions is a natural function of the way the human mind works. We gather evidence and theorize based on what (we think) we know. All too often, however, we are wrong. This is fine when we are doing small-time science experiments in a lab, but not fine when we are dealing with the malleable mind of another being.
The downside to incomplete listening is that in order to fill in the gaps, you have to make assumptions. Going back to my example above: based on my limited understanding of equine behavior, I assumed that Brego deliberately tried to put me on the ground time and time again. As I have learned a little bit more, I now see how he suffered terribly from a lack of confidence and was reduced to near panic attacks in certain situations. Repeated exposure to them in the form of “desensitization” did not help. It just exposed him more and more to what scared him. I didn’t have the tools to listen and not make incorrect assumptions. If you have ’em, use ’em. If you don’t, stay open. You soon will.
4. Always Do Your Best
“Your best is going to change from moment to moment. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
Acknowledgment and acceptance of the fluidity of the process while making a commitment to such agreements might allow our horsemanship to undergo a pretty profound transformation. Exchanging those old, worn-out deleterious agreements for Ruiz’ deceptively simple and powerful guiding principles could have an effect on our entire lives.
Like all great wisdom derived from the ancients, the good stuff is often hidden in plain sight. Mindfulness and concentration are required to detect, examine and implement the most elegant solutions to any problem, and the “problem” of ensuring the continued welfare of our horses and guaranteeing that of others needs a solution. If you have thoughts on these agreements or how they might be used to further the idea of an equine bill of rights, please let me know.